Discerning Morey’s Philosophy

2009 December 8
by rahat huq

Daryl Morey’s has been an “experiment” unprecedented thus far in this league.  Never before has a team predicated transactional decision-making primarily upon advanced statistical analysis.  With the club exceeding all expectations, to some extent, Morey’s methods have been validated.

Due to the novelty of his approach, and the immediacy of his success, oft forgotten is it that we still lay merely in the earliest of stages in the shaping of this team.  Only precious little is known of Daryl Morey’s managerial philosophy.  The forethought with which he has guided the transformation of this roster would indicate some grander scheme yet to unfold.  This is the subject of my intrigue.

What is Known

The signature transaction thus far of the Morey regime was the infamous draft night swapping of Rudy Gay and Stromile Swift in return for Shane Battier.  Up until that point in time, while it was known that the assistant general manager placed emphasis on statistical analysis, this bombshell was really the first indication that with the changing of the guard, conventional wisdom had completely been thrown out the window.  In my opinion, even moreso than relinquishing the rights to Gay, most fascinating about this deal were the implications regarding Stromile Swift.  His inclusion in a trade that already appeared lopsided in favor of Memphis was quite bewildering.  That a 6′9, 26 year old physical marvel was actually deemed to hold negative value signaled that whatever they exactly were, there were now new considerations being given weight in personnel analysis.

It has since been established that Daryl Morey is employing some combination of proprietary metrics in his player evaluations.  So much is known.  From there, things get a bit more unclear.

What We Think We Know

  • In 2007, entering Daryl Morey’s first draft as general manager, the Rockets had a gaping hole at the power forward position.  With viable power forward options still remaining on the board, the drafting of point guard Aaron Brooks shed some light upon Daryl Morey’s drafting philosophy.  At that point, I still held deep reservations regarding his guidance of the team – I had not been a proponent of the Battier trade.  However, I loved the selection of Brooks.  It seemed to indicate a primacy of talent over need, at least in the later selections.
  • In taking back  Jackie Butler, the Scola trade demonstrated the willingness to absorb unfavorable contracts.  However, relatively speaking, Butler’s, and the one year albatross later taken on in the form of Brian Cook, were menial in burden.
  • The Bonzi Wells – Bobby Jackson trade not only showed prudence, but was our first glimpse of real asset creation.  While Bobby Jackson had value as a veteran reserve, the real significance of this acquisition was that his expiring contracted created an asset of future value (later to be used for Artest.)  As Rockets fans, such maneuvering was a foreign experience as for the previous decade, every move was only made with present concern.
  • I believe that the contract negotiations with Carl Landry proved that Morey will not hastily pay above the market rate to retain his own players.  Morey could have moved quickly to resign Landry at the price of his (agent’s) demands, but instead, he opted to wait until Charlotte set the market rate.  This patience is in stark contrast to the practice of Morey’s predecessor (see: Norris, Moochie; Maloney, Matt etc.)
  • The Ron Artest acquisition taught us that Morey isn’t completely averse to risks.  There was an assumption that ‘Moreyball’ meant playing it safe, but this episode debunked that notion.  This would seem to serve as proof that Daryl Morey will make a dangerous investment if the potential return (i.e.: proximity to a title) is deemed worthy.  On the other hand, one could easily argue that in giving up just two late first rounders, the Artest trade actually wasn’t a risk.
  • As Morey’s philosophy began to seem clearer, the Trevor Ariza signing came as a surprise.  Before, my assumption was that Morey unwavered in his inclination towards bargains.  The acquisition of Ariza indicates that Daryl will also pay the market rate to acquire talent.  Simply put, it’s not just about compiling a roster of cheap bargains as many had assumed.  He will pay full value for players.  (Of course, this assertion is prone to the counter-argument that perhaps Trevor Ariza was determined to hold more worth than the MLE.)
  • As seen each year, we know that Daryl Morey will maneuver in drafts, using his intel to accumulate future considerations.
  • We also know there is a propensity to draft foreign talent and stash it overseas, allowing it to develop for later use.  However, we are still so early into Morey’s reign that we have not yet seen the fruits of this exercise.  Does Daryl Morey hope to play these players or are these simply assets to be used in trades?
  • Finally, many conclusions can be drawn from the decision to start Chuck Hayes this season at the center position.  Most importantly, I think it shows a resolve against the pressures of conformity.  Daryl Morey didn’t just follow the existing model and sign a veteran stopgap to fill a hole.  He was convinced that his team could win in a different way (i.e.: starting a 6′5 center and running) and thus he implemented his vision.

Looking Ahead

Daryl Morey has only been general manager of the Houston Rockets since May of 2007.  When he joined, the roster was bereft of talent and thus, he was relegated to the task of cleaning up previous mistakes and expunging toxic assets (i.e.: Juwan Howard).  Concurrently, starting with the draft class of 2007, he slowly began accumulating his own collection of talent.

What becomes interesting is that, with the roster having been cleansed of dead weight, and the emergence of players like Lowry, Brooks, and Landry, this is the first season that Daryl Morey actually has valued assets at his disposal.  So what does he do with them?

Does he simply retain them or is the philosophy to buy low, develop, and sell high?

Take Aaron Brooks for example.  I think his trade value might actually be higher than that of his actual player value.  Sell high?

Then there are the imminent free agency decisions on Luis Scola, Kyle Lowry, and (the next summer) Shane Battier.  The former two are probably due big raises.  Would Morey be willing to pay the market rate to retain them?  Or was their value to him simply the fact that they were underpaid?

How will Morey handle the issue of Carl Landry’s emergence?  He too will be due a big pay raise at some point and I would imagine this would impact the decision on Scola.  Conventional wisdom would dictate simply moving Scola in a trade to open up more room for Landry, but this is Daryl Morey of whom we are speaking.  Perhaps the equation isn’t really as simple as assuming a direct correlation between increased playing time and production for a young, emerging talent?  It is completely conceivable that to Morey, the two players hold more real value in tandem as a platoon.

And of course, of what importance is chemistry?  This is the distinction with Billy Beane’s ‘Moneyball’ model of management.  Baseball is essentially a game of one on one matchups where independent parts can be interchanged with little effect to their relations to the whole.  In our case, cohesion is critical, and of greater relevance, we already know that these players play well together (one could argue that the Rockets have the best chemistry in the league).  What value is placed upon that in personnel considerations?  This reality of ’synthesis of the whole’ makes it increasingly difficult to assess independent assets for their true value.

What about the salary cap?  Billy Beane had to keep selling his assets because he had ownership-imposed financial restrictions.  Morey doesn’t but at the same time, he has to deal with a fixed cap and the menace of the luxury tax.  So while Morey doesn’t have that suffocating imposition that would force his hand, he still has a finite amount of resources which would influence its allocation.  To date, Les Alexander has not shown a willingness to exceed the tax.  Does this make it more important to land a true star or is it actually more important that resources be put to good use?

What about ’stars’?  Does Morey even buy into the concept of ’star players’?  He has spoken of wanting to acquire a premiere talent, but we really have no idea what he might have in mind.  It is plausible that Daryl Morey might just think that ‘team-oriented’ basketball is more conducive to success.  If he does believe in ’stars’, at what cost is their acquisition justified?

The conclusion of the Mcgrady saga will also be very revealing.    As aforementioned, the Scola trade proved a willingness to absorb bad contracts required for facilitation of a trade.  However, Jackie Butler’s and (later Brian Cook’s) were still relatively small deals.  Would Morey be willing to take back some long term albatross to acquire the player of his desire?  My hunch is that he seems to prefer flexibility over the conventional ’star at all costs’ ideology, but I have no basis for this hypothesis.

Final Thoughts

Daryl Morey has finally begun to receive the praise he is due.  With this team’s surprising success, his methods are no longer dismissed as mere novelty.  Because of the brilliance in his approach, it has been easy to forget that still, many questions remain unanswered.  Still, much is yet to be revealed.  Still are we only in the earliest stages of the construction of this team.

It will be fascinating to observe as Daryl Morey’s managerial philosophy further comes to light.

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  • Anonymous
    this may not have much to do with this subject...although....everyone believes Tracy McGrady is done. Rockets gm thinks so as well. He believes Rockets dont need Tracy. Trevor Ariza maybe a future to the Rockets organization. But Tracy playing with a painful injury is better than Trevor now. Trevor may offer much better defence but Tracy will offer you more all around. More production offensively and Tracy can still make a spark on defense. As statistics show..Tracy with a bumbed knee is better than Ariza....

    these are Tracy's stats last year compared to Trevors 20 game statistics..

    2008-09 Statistics FG 3PT FT Rebounds Misc
    Season 35 33.7 188-485 .388 44-117 .376 125-156 .801 0.6 3.8 4.4 1.20 .43 1.97 1.09 5.0 15.6

    2009-10 Statistics FG 3PT FT Rebounds Misc
    Season 20 38.9 131-343 .382 44-134 .328 45-62 .726 1.1 4.1 5.1 2.20 .65 2.55 2.70 3.6 17.6

    tracy shoots does just as much as trevor when Trevor is playin far more minutes now than tracy did last year....Rockets is ok now....Tracy will take that team to another level...They need a closer!
  • johnjohn osayomi...OOUGHEYT
    Trade t-mac.....i hope he burns you wen he plays against stupid houston after he is traded....so foolish of an organization...Greed is what i c in this organization...Let him play its the only way a trade can happen
  • Lars
    Great article as usual Cabbage!

    I think there is a hidden downside here. For the first time in a long time, there is a complete lack of scrubs on the roster. Sure there is the matter of Cook, but he is the last of a dying breed. I remember the days clinging to hope that once Luther Head was purged or Alston finally traded we would make the leap to greatness.

    As it stands now, every member of the Rockets (save Cook) is a valuable contributer (lets just ignore McGrady atm) and eventually we are going to have to say farewell to someone we cherish. I guess we can only hope that sacrafice yields a sweet nectar in return, else it could become tough to be a Rocketfan. For what could be worse than being in love and not wanting to change a mediocre team?
  • Steve
    Superb article, as well written as it is informative. Very Knowledgeable.

    It's my opinion the Houston sports scene is going to be one of the premier sites in America.

    The GMs of all 3 franchises are top notch. Only Drayton as an owner seems luke warm.

    Rick Atleman is a fantastic coach, Morey a super GM and Les Alexander is the best owner in all of professional sports, bar none.

    Of any professional sports team, the Rockets are becoming my favorite because of their heart and hustle. They play with such passion.
  • Fritz Novak
    Also, it's worth mentioning that Morey found the right coach, the right system and looked for players who were able to thrive within it. Teams too often go for players who have talent but don't work well with the system (see Cavs and Suns with Shaq). While there are a few players who are versatile enough to work with almost any team, credit Morey for continually finding guys who thrive in an uptempo but patient offense.
  • Arturo
    Great Article! Over the past couple seasons there has been nothing but pleasant surprises delivered by the hands of Morey. I am checking the web every morning to see if there's been a trade. At first the trades left alot of us saying "WTF?" but after the players hit the floor and perform, then we're all saying " Oh,I see...". Now we learn not to question the moves, but to anticipate them and anxiously await them. It takes being a Rocketfan to a whole new level, where once we only paid attention and cheered for the team in the games, now we follow and cheer for the management as well, not many sports teams in the world can boast that kind of love from their fans.

    As far as the T-mac Ariza comparison in the comments goes. I think the quote of the stats actually disproves the point made. Do you actually see $16,989,124.00 difference between the value of the two players based on those stats? T-mac's stats were only a tad better offensively and a tad worse defensively. What kind of younger, never-before-injured talent could T-mac's $22million plus get us? I will say that T-mac was a tremendous talent in his prime and worth every penny at one point. But I don't see him just jumping in and being that player again this season, but who knows? It could happen. I will say that if we could resign him next year for under $10million, then it's definitely worth it.

    I'd be more interested in seeing what Morey could come up with for the $22 million personally.
  • Bernt
    re: Lars' comment

    I agree that how Morey handles parting with one of his own 'value-finds' will be quite revealing as to what his overall philosophy and values really are. The Rockets, as they are right now, are a compelling team but not a deep-playoff team. And to get value you have to part with value. Now Tmac should be able to get you something, but I think any trade involving him has future considerations written all over it as no one will trade a blossoming young star just for the expiring contract and hope that TMac can play, and any team wanting just the expiring in return probably doesn't have the upper level talent to trade back to Houston to begin with. The fact that they aren't playing him at all right now suggests to me that Morey is more inclined to hold on to him and be a FA player next year than to trade for anything with less value than what he could sign (a Chris Bosh, just to throw an example out there). Finally, we'll see if Morey is susceptible to the Pritchard Syndrome (the one where you fall so in love with your guys/own asset accumulation brilliance that you limit your ability to make the necessary moves/trades to improve your team because you just can't stand to part with anything).
  • Nice analysis. It'll be interesting to see what he ends up doing with Yao and Tracy. And what direction the team heads in once those issues are resolved.
  • jr249
    Good analysis, but I am surprised you didn't discuss the decision to continue to build around Yao, despite his injury history. IMHO, that has been signature decision of the Morey era. It has also proven to be a mistake(sorry Yao, you're a great guy and a great player when healthy) as Morey has missed out on maximizing Yao's full asset value, though there are obviously other (read: commercial) factors at work. We'll see if Morey changes course going forward.
  • Very nice article on the Morey philosophy. Les Alexander has never been too shy about spending, so I am sure Morey has the green light to spend if the value is there.

    As for Houston sports in general, I think Morey and Richard Smith (the Texans' GM) are both good, but Ed Wade is perhaps the worst GM on the planet. The Astros will wallow in mediocrity as long as he's on the job.
  • Nice article! Great work, but I do have a couple of questions/thoughts.

    1. I actually thought the Battier trade was good at the time, and was even good/great last year. However, now with no Yao or Tmac, plus Rudy Gay taking a step forward, maybe he could be a greater asset than Battier? I mean Ariza's not as good defensively as Battier, but he can cover whichever the opposing team's best player like Battier has in the past. In fact, you talk about how the team might want to acquire a new young stud to replace TMac, and might Gay not fit that description to a T? He'll even be a restricted free agent this year, so there's a decent chance the Rockets go after him, no?

    2. You credit Morey for starting Hayes, but c'mon, that's Adelman's decision, not Morey's. In fact, you say how Morey didn't sign a stop-gap center as most GMs would, but wasn't that what he did by signing Andersen? Granted Andersen has skills and it's better than signing say Brian Skinner, but Morey did try to go for the stop-gap band-aid. Credit Adelman for realizing the team'd be more effective with Hayes starting and Andersen getting select minutes off the pine. Then again, Morey's smart enough to realize that by having hired a really good coach, Morey then should let the coach do what he thinks is best rather than butt in & say, "Psst, start the Australian I brought in!"

    Great work,

    (yup, an LA Clippers blog, but I'm still a big Rockets fan)
  • Osama
    1. I love you.
    2. Attempts made to get Gortat = stop-gap center or potential bargain? His unwillingness to pay top dollar leads me to believe Morey was going for a little bit of both.
    3. Thoughts on Morey's blind committment to Yao? Seems to go against his alleged "star power" philosophy. How much of this is a business decision vs. basketball decision for Morey?
    4. Any thoughts on what Morey could / should do with an expiring max contract in the hottest free agent market in years? I love the idea of Bosh here.
    5. Shane's duke education and attention to detail which in only assumed he picked up from his investment banking internship has been exposed. How do you feel about takign advantage of this exposure and trading him while he still has some value.
    6. Disagree on Aaron brooks high trade value. Waterbug point guards that jack up the kind of shots brooks takes are a dime in dozen. It's a matter of opportunity. No way brooks scratches 20 mins on any other Western Conference play off bound team.
    7. I have to get back to work. Catch you later. Peace.
  • Don Mynack
    Not playing McGrady is more of a chemistry thing than anything else. Ariza needs to make his mistakes now, in a season that doesn't matter (as far as playoffs are concerned), and taking his minutes for a head case like Tracy just isn't worth it. My gut is that Tracy will not play for the Rockets this year, and might have already been dealt if it weren't for the terrible financial conditions of the league.
  • todd zapp
    great article about gm morey. all he has done since he has been here is make great decisions. however i do believe that we need to get a little bigger if we are gto get anywhere in the playoffs. i think a Bosh for McGrady deal is in the works and morey will get it done. Another thing he needs to get done is to sign the next sixth man of the year, Carl Landry to a long term contract. Heres a vote for Morey for GM of the year
  • Kyle Haley
    More of the same praise on the morey article. I'm a Rockets fan/Houstonian/Texan now living in Los Angeles. I felt the same way regarding Morey not getting the recognition he deserves as one of the successfully innovative GM's in the league. Til I finally heard him mentioned right before our play-off series with LA last year, from none other than a local sports radio host out here in LA. I couldn't believe it initially, because you just can't get an unbiased opinion from any host out here' but low and behold it was happening. Morey is the truth. The maneuvering he's done from his GM post has been nothing short of genius (see Rockets take a healthy fully stocked Lakers team to the brink of elimination/ 2008 play-offs/ without 2 best players). ARE YOU KIDDING ME!!!!!!! We didn't have our 2 best players walked into the staples center and handled the Lakers right from the start (Yao did play that game). Even so....are you kidding me!!!!! Rahat, I'm with you, and have been. I believe the best is yet to come!! Houston Morey is the truth, you better believe it because those outside of Houston are paying attention!! Rokec
  • I love you.
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